Sidney Poitier, who died in January at the age of 94, should not have been the only black leading man of his talent, magnetism and stature in his heyday in Hollywood, when all the early ones were his. But with the fight for civil rights and his hard-earned stardom amplifying each other, he showed what the solo version of such revolutionary greatness could do.
At one point in “Sidney,” Reginald Hudlin’s documentary about the groundbreaking actor, director and activist, we see him in a later interview admit he felt lonely at his peak. The richness of feeling one moment hints at is something I wish was explored further in a biodoc about someone whose chiseled impact on history is as complex as it sounds. But an Oprah Winfrey-produced movie that celebrates the icon who meant the most to her, and shows her collapsing in front of the camera as she expresses it, is probably not the place for closer contemplation.
At first, though, it’s Poitier himself speaking to us through Hudlin’s camera, and it’s fascinating. His memories of being a Bahamian farmer unfamiliar with cars or mirrors, first confronting American racism as a Miami teenager, and battling illiteracy and poverty to get into the American Negro Theater from New York, are told with such speed, care and detail that he becomes his youngest, discovering himself anew. We are reminded that great actors never seem to lose their narrative power.
When Hollywood called (beginning with “No Way Out” in 1950), the dignity, strength, and charm of her roles uplifted black moviegoers, never threatening white ones. Poitier still had to sacrifice freedom to save a racist (“The Defiant Ones”) and help German nuns win a landmark Oscar (“Lilies of the Field”), but he frequently broke barriers in on-screen portrayal and the power off the screen. .
In his biggest film year, 1967, he memorably slapped a supremacist in “In the Heat of the Night,” a moment interviewees Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman and Louis Gossett Jr. enjoyed on screen. labeling Poitier for Uncle Tom, even with his notable and, we learn from one activist, personally jeopardizing commitment to the civil rights movement. As Lee puts it, Poitier suffered the “slings and arrows” that Denzel Washington didn’t have to suffer, but luckily he had the shoulders for it.
Although his turbulent romance with Diahann Carroll (his “Paris Blues” co-star) is addressed, including recollections of his first wife, Juanita Hardy, most coverage of Poitier’s family life is devoted to how he appreciated the example of His parents. and how he committed himself to responsible fatherhood, prompting fond memories of the six daughters and the widow Joanna.
Much of “Sidney” sounds like an introductory class to Poitier or a witty tribute to fans. However, the greatest hits approach sometimes disappoints when we know just how inventive and challenging the non-fiction form can be since James Baldwin was brought to life in “I Am Not Your Negro” and the documentary series “The Last Movie Stars” revealed. a painfully human Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Here, the beat is of talking heads and stock footage in respectful harmony, balancing spirited A-list salutes (including Washington, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand and Halle Berry) with cultural insights offered by writers Nelson George and the late Greg Tate. , who talks about the expected and never enough contours in Poitier’s career, which was everything when it counted the most, like when he hired mostly black teams for his directing projects.
Surely there is more to be gleaned from the life of this extraordinary and complicated pioneer than an appropriately pleasing love letter to his brilliance and bravery. The story of his lively and passionate friendship with Harry Belafonte, the richest personal vein in this film, spanning theater, politics and movies (all acclaimed as “Buck and the Preacher”), could be his own documentary from the. So here’s hoping that “Sidney” arouses deeper gazes, instead of sealing the life of further reflection. There’s plenty of time, after all, because while we may have lost the man this year, the towering legacy of him “carrying other people’s dreams,” as he once described it to Winfrey, will live on like few others.
Classified: PG-13, for some language that includes racial slurs and some smoking
Execution time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Launch set. 23, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; also available on Apple TV+